Make this Your Best Year of Reading

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For the past two years I have participated in the Goodreads Reading Challenge, both years setting a goal of 100 books. Last year I didn’t quite make the target, but I got close. This year, with 64 books as of today, I’m on pace to meet the target and actually about 11 books ahead of schedule. If reading more books is one of your goals, read on for some tips on how to get this accomplished.

Note: Many of these tips really apply only to nonfiction (and especially personal development). But some tips will apply to both, so read on.

How to

Read Better

First things first. Before you get to reading more books, make sure you’re getting the most out of each book you read. This leads to greater returns on your reading – a great reward in itself, but which will, in turn, spur you on to reading more and motivate you into reading faster.

Start Each Book With a Deliberate Overview

Don’t dive in headfirst with your eyes closed. Before starting the book, read the table of contents. Absorb and think about the list for a minute, allowing your mind to form connections and possible conclusions.

Next, flip through (either manually or digitally) the entire book, skimming the contents. Don’t try to concentrate on anything in particular, but just let sentences and keywords jump out at you.

Then, as you read each chapter, go through a similar overview process: before diving in, read the title, any section headers, as well as the first paragraph and the last paragraph. The author will usually summarize the major points in those paragraphs. Only then do you start the actual reading process. By that point in time, all of that “overviewing” will cause you to comprehend the book better and faster, allowing you to read it in less time, yet with more enjoyment and satisfaction.

For more on why “superficial reading” works so well, from The Little Guide to Your Well-Read Life, Steve Leveen explains: “Cognitive psychologists as well as our own experiences tell us that memory is helped by building anticipation. Previewing the book, hovering over it at stages, builds your expectation for what you will encounter in the actual reading. Your mind likes this approach. You’re creating places to put the facts and concepts that are to come, like putting clothes in a well-organized closet… It might seem that this successive approach would add time to your reading. In fact, it reduces the time it takes to absorb ideas and make them stick. In the end, you’ll gain a more complete understanding of a book in less time.”

Take Notes

If You Own it, Annotate It

If you’re reading your own physical copy of the book, enhance reading comprehension by highlighting the text and writing notes in the margin. For me, marking up a book is a sign that I’m engaging with the text, which always improves reading comprehension. (I know that you can also highlight on the Kindle app, but I really don’t avail myself of that feature – I just don’t find it particularly satisfying, but maybe that’s just me.) This is also a great way to solidify any loosely formed connections you’re making to other materials, thoughts or ideas. 75% of my margin notes are connections to other ideas.

Your Tiny Reading Notebook

In addition, keep a small notebook on hand to jot down notes that you’ll want to remember. This is especially important for action steps that you want to take because of what you’re reading. That is, after all, the whole point of reading, right? I’ve found that as much as I enjoy marking up a book, I don’t always go back to look at my annotations. For me, marking up a book is more about getting the most out of it in the moment. (Of course, when I was in school, it was more about passing a final, but the habit still serves me well today). For actionable ideas, I write them all in one place so that I can easily find my takeaways later. I will then periodically go through the notebook and add some of those ideas to my daily planner or to my personal development plan.

Be sure that the notebook is tiny: I carry mine with me everywhere – including in my car and even in my crossbody wallet purse (the tiniest purse that could still call itself a purse), so I don’t want it to take up too much space.

Read Faster

Speedreading Techniques

Speed Reading basically comes down to using a physical tracker to force your eyes to grow through a text faster than it would otherwise. The simplest method is to take an index card and set it right below or above the first line of the page. Read the line, move the card, repeat. Play with how quickly you can move the card, forcing your eyes to take in the next line. I wouldn’t do this for really difficult material or for anything fiction – the former because it decreases your comprehension of already difficult material and the latter because you want to be able to savor a good story (and if it’s really good, you’re going to read quickly anyways).  But even if you’re not technically “speed reading”, you can still use this technique to slowly increase your reading speed, particularly for books that are fairly easy to comprehend.

Further reading: check out this article for more details on learning to speed read.

Don’t be Afraid to Skim It and Be Done With It

I think one of the biggest secrets to getting more reading done is the realization that not every book needs to be read cover to cover. Let’s say you’ve already read 20+ books on personal finance. You probably already know the basics about personal finance, but you are really interested in the subject and you’re always looking for interesting nuggets and new ideas, so you keep reading every book on the subject. You don’t need to read the next book cover to cover when you already know 75% of the material by heart. But you don’t want to skip the book entirely because there could be some great information tucked away somewhere. Skim the majority of the book, stopping to read through slowly when you get to new information. You’ll get exactly what you need out of the book and move on.

I think there’s a sense that we feel like we’re not living up to expectations if we don’t read a book cover to cover. But think about it – whose expectations? Is this a homework assignment? No – the bottom line here is personal growth, with “personal” being the key word. What matters is what you get out of it, not whether or not you actually check off a box. Reading is reading is good.

Use the Format that Works for You – and the Book

There are so many different ways to read a book these days, from e-readers to old school paperback to audiobooks, that it’s easy to to be overwhelmed and end up getting stuck on one format when others might work better, either for you or for that particular book. What I’ve learned over the years is that rather than utilizing just one reading format, I use all of them, depending on the type of book I’m reading.

E-Readers

First, the E-Readers: namely, the Kindle or the Nook. I no longer own an actual Kindle, but I have a Samsung Galaxy Tab and a Kindle Reader app on my tab. The thing I love about the Kindle (app, that is) is that it automatically adds your book to your Goodreads account as “Currently Reading” and will select it as “Read” once you reach the end of the book. Also, obviously, there’s the convenience of not lugging around actual books. You can also access a ton of books for free with the Kindle Unlimited program – many authors put their books up to be borrowed by readers for free for a period of time. The cons of using a Kindle are that, for some, reading a physical copy of something you can touch allows for more of a deeper, richer experience of the book. As a tactile learner myself, I definitely comprehend something I can touch and, better yet, take notes in and highlight better than something I’m reading on a digital screen. This means that, for me, the Kindle is best reserved for quicker reads – either fiction or nonfiction books that are fairly straightforward and easy to read.

The Kindle is also great for materials that you might later use as a reference. For example, I go back to The Fibro Manual by Dr. Genevra Lipton again and again as I’ve worked through various treatments for fibromyalgia.

Old School Paperback (or Hardcover, if You’ve Got Money to Burn)

When I’m reading a book that’s a little meatier, more difficult to understand, or just contains a lot of information I want to fully retain, I’ll get a physical copy. My first stop is ALWAYS thrift and used books stores. You can find so much at these places, especially some of the classic self-development books, like The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People or How to Win Friends and Influence People. But if it’s a little newer or more obscure, I’ll order it off Amazon or Ebay.

Paperback Bonus Tip: Many personal development books, from mindfulness to personal finance to starting a business, also include an accompanying workbook to go through the material, which you might want to look in to. Check out the reviews to see if it’s something that would make the book a better experience. (Some are better than others, so do your research.) If so, you may only need a physical copy of the workbook and then you can stick with the Kindle or library copy of the actual book.

Audiobooks

Audiobooks are truly my soulmate book format (if there is such a thing). I’ve gotten through *so* many more books than I could have imagined through Audible. There are a few different categories that best fit an audiobook. First, they’re great for personal development books that focus more on big ideas and not necessarily a lot of difficult information. Books by John C. Maxwell, Gretchen Rubin and Ruth Soukup come to mind. I will still carry around my small notebook to jot any notes down, but if I find that it’s too meaty to just listen to, I may want to obtain a copy I can read.

Audiobooks also perfect for memoirs, especially when the memoir is read by the author. Leah Remini’s Troublemaker: Surviving Hollywood and Scientology was fun, in large part because Leah Remini is fun. I’m also working through Hillary Clinton’s What Happened, which is taking a LONG time, but I’m only listening to about 5-10 minutes/day (basically until I feel like listening to something else that doesn’t completely depress me). Memoirs have a fluid quality and are never difficult to come back to, so they’re great for this format.

Audiobooks are also wonderful for fiction. While the majority of the books I read fall under the personal development and self-improvement categories, I always love a good mystery or thriller. I read a lot of books proclaiming to be either “the next” Girl on the Train or Big Little Lies. Sadly, I have found neither, but I still listen to every promising one of them like it’s my damn job. I’ve also long-since listened to every single Agatha Christie mystery that’s been released onto Audible (yes, that’s every single one and some of them more than once – some of them more than say, 20 times). I *highly* recommend them if you’re looking for some classics by the original Queen of Crime. For a personal development junkie like me, fiction sometimes feel frivolous, but you know what? Fiction makes you smarter, and a good mystery in particular is, in my opinion, the best kind of brain workout.

And where do I listen to audiobooks? Answer: everywhere. Getting ready for the day, in the car, cleaning the house, folding laundry, going on a walk (not running – that’s a job for music), painting furniture, coloring in an adult coloring book, taking a bath, and on and on and on. I’m really never not listening to either an audiobook or podcast at any given moment that doesn’t require my concentration and would otherwise be experienced in silence.

Bonus audiobook tip: Listen at 1.25-1.5x speed to get through them even faster. I know some productivity gurus swear by listening at 2x speed to really jam through their reading, but I find that to be too fast to really comprehend the material. But 1.25-1.5x is the sweet spot for me, depending on how quickly the narrator reads to begin with and how difficult the material is. I’ve now found that listening at normal speed sounds way too slow and tedious for me! Experiment to see what works for you and you may be able to squeeze in a few more books this way.

Library Books

Library books are definitely in a category of their own. They’re physical books, which means I’ll have an easier time comprehending the material. On the other hand, you definitely can’t write or highlight in them, so it loses some of the functionality of your own copy of a book. I usually check out a huge stack of just about anything that I’m remotely interested in, then I will ruthlessly pare them down as I go through them at home. Knowing that they were free spares me the burden of forcing myself to finish something that I’m just not into (but see below for more on that). Then, as I begin reading, I’ll either just finish the library book or go ahead and purchase it if I think I need it. If it would make a great addition to a permanent library, I’ll purchase it via Kindle. If it would be best read through the process of a messy annotation, I’ll get a physical copy.

Make Sure It’s Convenient

Keep a Book Everywhere

At any given point in time, my Goodreads profile says I’m reading about 17 books. (Oddly enough, it’s never 16 or 18 or 19 – it’s pretty consistently 17). You might wonder how I keep them straight. That’s not really an issue for me, truthfully – my brain is pretty good at compartmentalizing material. Plus, many of the books are on the same subject so I don’t actually have to make much of a mental switch. The hard part for me has always been how to choose between them. When you have a huge stack of books, how do you decide which one to read right now?

My answer to this question has made reading much more automatic, saving me time and reducing decision fatigue. The answer is that I don’t sit around with a pile of books – I keep 1-2 books in a million different spots, so that I’m reading them at specific times. At any given time, I have the following types of books at these different locations:

  • At my desk: books on mindfulness and a cognitive behavior therapy workbook, for my morning mindset ritual.
  • On my Kindle, by the door: easy to read books for waiting periods when I run errands.
  • On my Audible app on my phone: 1-2 personal development books and 1 psychological thriller. The rule is I listen to the personal development books first throughout the day, then I get to listen to the thriller at the end of the day.
  • In the bathroom (TMI? Sorry!): a one page/day type of book (e.g., The Intellectual Devotional).
  • In the living room: 1-2 personal development books, to read while the kids watch an episode of Paw Patrol before bed.
  • On my nightstand: my “guilty pleasure” (in quotes because I do not actually feel guilty at all) fiction, usually mystery or thriller. Right now it’s usually rereading a young adult thriller, in preparation for my latest obsession, the Teen Creeps Podcast.

Make Sure it’s Fun

Challenges

As mentioned above, I love my Goodreads Reading Challenge. You don’t get anything – no grades, no prizes, no cash (wouldn’t that be sweet?). But I love checking things off and seeing my progress throughout the year. I love looking back and remembering the books I’ve read and how they affected me. And I love the feeling of accomplishment that comes with meeting the goal. If you’re motivated by challenges and contests (even if it’s really just with yourself) then make sure you sign up.

Podcasts: The Modern Day Book Club

Oddly enough, I’ve never really been part of a book club. For one thing, as an introvert, I’ve never felt a huge need to make reading a social activity. To make reading a wine activity is another story, certainly, but it’s still a time commitment that I’ve never been able to justify. Maybe when I get older.

I am totally on board, however, with listening a good podcast dedicated to reading books. I just discovered the Teen Creeps podcast, which discusses young adult thrillers from the 80’s and 90’s. Rereading books I read as a young teenager is kind of amazing  and the hosts, Kelly Nugent and Lindsay Katai, are hilarious. Sometimes it’s hard to justify spending time on not only “frivolous” reading but also on frivolous podcasting to go over the frivolous book I already read, but listening to this podcast is one of my end-of-the-day fun activities, often just replacing TV while I pick up the house and fold laundry. In this way, it’s actually a better use of my time than sitting in front of the TV.

But if teen thrillers aren’t your thing, there are tons of other great podcasts out there to compliment your reading habit. You get the benefits of a book club without actually having to leave your house or talk to people! (If that matters to you, as it does me).

Have at Least One Fun Book on Your Nightstand

The last book I read is going to be fun, frivolous, and maybe a little trashy. It’s something to look forward to after a long day. It doesn’t require a lot of brain cells, which is useful because I feel pretty fried at that point. It’s also extra incentive to get myself to bed earlier, which means I get more sleep. Lest I spend all day reading Christopher Pike, however, I leave it on my nightstand as a clear signal that I need to fill up my brain with some learning before I can get to teens receiving ignoring ominous chain letters.

It’s Ok to Throw Out the Trash

This last tip is a gentle reminder that, just like you don’t have to clean your plate at dinner, you absolutely, 100% do not have to finish every book you start. It doesn’t matter if everyone else on the planet loved it. If you hate it, throw it out! (Don’t actually throw it away – donate it, of course). I tried to read 50 Shades of Grey and I couldn’t get through it. Besides the problematic nature of the misogyny glorified abusive relationship that didn’t fall in line with the actual practices of much of the S&M community, it. was. so. boring. Like, so boring. I got about 100 pages through and just couldn’t go on. Who are these people and why do I care about them? I don’t! And I don’t feel bad about it. Because it freed up my time to read more Christopher Pike (which isn’t always super feminist but at least it’s interesting).

Cheers to reading more!

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What books are you reading this year? Tell me in the comments.

 

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